OK, by popular demand I was asked to rank the best defensive teams of all time. The Kansas City Royals ranked No. 1 on Buster Olney's list for 2016 and it's certainly possible that the 2014 or 2015 Royals would rank high on any all-time list.
The problem with historic evaluations of defense is that we don't have the same precise measurements as when looking at offense. The Defensive Runs Saved era goes back only to 2003. Before that, Baseball-Reference uses the Total Zone system to estimate runs saved on defense. So we'll use Total Zone and consider general reputation as well. Note: Total Zone doesn't evaluate pitcher defense so we're only looking at the estimated contributions of the eight other positions.
I took a little different approach for this story, soliciting suggestions on Twitter, so let's see how the readers did.
Key defenders: SS Ozzie Smith, 3B Terry Pendleton, RF Andy Van Slyke, CF Willie McGee, LF Vince Coleman
Total Zone rating: plus-50 runs
A good start, as the Cardinals won 101 games with an in-his-prime Ozzie. McGee also won a Gold Glove that year and Pendleton was a terrific fielder. The 1986 Cardinals actually score much higher at plus-94 runs (plus-99 on FanGraphs; I'm not sure why the sites have different totals). Total Zone credits first baseman Jack Clark with minus-10 runs in 1985 but plus-4 in 1986, so that's a big swing. Second baseman Tom Herr improved from minus-5 to plus-1 and the '86 team added Mike LaValliere, a strong defensive catcher.
A reader going by Louisville Slugger suggests the 1984 Detrot Tigers.
Key defenders: CF Chet Lemon, SS Alan Trammell, 2B Lou Whitaker, C Lance Parrish
Total Zone rating: plus-52 runs
Definitely strong up the middle and it's possible that Total Zone underrates a strong-armed catcher like Parrish (he threw out 46 percent of runners that year while allowing just 44 steals in 144 games started, but is rated at a mere plus-5 runs). The '82 and '83 Tigers actually rate higher, at plus-77 and plus-80 runs.
Key defenders: 3B Brooks Robinson, SS Mark Belanger, CF Paul Blair, LF Don Buford, 2B Davey Johnson
Total Zone rating: plus-114 runs
And the 1973 Orioles:
Key defenders: 2B Bobby Grich, SS Mark Belanger, 3B Brooks Robinson, CF Paul Blair, RF Merv Rettenmund
Total Zone rating: plus-119 runs
How good are those figures? They rate as the two highest figures since 1900, which isn't a surprise. Robinson, of course, is regarded as the best defensive third baseman of all time, and the metrics back it up. Belanger has been forgotten, but he won eight Gold Gloves and the fact that he played 18 years in the big leagues despite hitting .228 with 20 career home runs is a testament to his defense. There are those who will say Blair was the best center fielder they've ever seen and he won eight Gold Gloves as well. And the 1973 team had added Grich, another elite defender, giving the Orioles four Gold Glove winners that season.
Chris Burrow suggests the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals.
Key defenders: SS Ozzie Smith, 1B Keith Hernandez, 2B Tom Herr, 3B Ken Oberkfell
Total Zone rating: plus-53 runs
How many teams have two players universally regarded as the best ever at their positions? The Cardinals had Ozzie and Hernandez, although they combined for "just" plus-32 runs that year via Total Zone.
Scott Eiland suggested a trio of teams, including the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies.
Key defenders: 3B Mike Schmidt, CF Garry Maddox, 2B Manny Trillo, SS Larry Bowa, C Bob Boone
Total Zone rating: plus-4 runs
Not anything special. Schmidt and Maddox were past their defensive prime and Bowa was more sure-handed than rangy at shortstop. Plus, no team with Greg Luzinski can be considered an all-time great defensive team. The 1978 team, when these guys were a little younger, scores much better at plus-78 runs.
Anthony Zazo likes the 2008 Phillies.
Total Zone rating: plus-41 runs
I thought this team would rate higher, but it comes in only plus-41 and that's with Ryan Howard somehow rating at plus-9. Defensive Runs Saved does rate this team at plus-77 runs, with Utley improving from plus-8 in Total Zone to plus-31 in Defensive Runs Saved.
I assume this has to do with Utley being an early proponent of shifting, as he was often doing this on his own before it became popular. So Defensive Runs Saved -- which uses video review of every play -- credits him with making a lot of plays that other second basemen weren't making. Was he an all-time great defender, as DRS suggests? His range factor -- simply, plays made -- was slightly higher than the league average at his peak, although it's noteworthy that he never won a Gold Glove. Yes, Gold Glove voting is flawed, but the perception among the managers and coaches was that Utley wasn't anything special. But in 2008, he made 5.18 plays per nine innings compared to the MLB average of 4.83. Over 155 games, that's about 54 extra plays made. My opinion is that Utley's positioning did add real value to the Phillies' defense. I'm not sure why Total Zone measures it at such a different level.
Clint Scoles mentioned the 2013-2015 Kansas City Royals. The 2013 team rates best via Total Zone.
Total Zone rating: plus-53 runs
They're even more dominant via Defensive Runs Saved at plus-96 (and rate at plus-40 in 2014 and plus-56 in 2015).
Total Zone rating: plus-84 runs
A lot of this was Andruw Jones, who grades out at plus-35 runs, but first baseman Andres Galarraga (minus-5) was the team's only defensive liability. And if you factored in pitcher defense with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine they'd rate even higher.
Nobody mentioned the 2012 Braves, but they may have been even better.
Total Zone rating: plus-101 runs
And that was only a partial season from Simmons. Bourn rated at plus-38 runs on Total Zone (and plus-24 via DRS) so he was terrific, a reason the Indians signed him as a free agent that offseason, only to see him immediately go in the tank.
Ryan K. and Mets Daddy mentioned the 1999 New York Mets and their famous infield.
Total Zone rating: plus-22 runs
The infield was great -- plus-81 runs -- but outfielders Brian McRae, Roger Cedeno and Rickey Henderson combined for minus-48 runs. Is all that representative? Well, Rickey was 40 years old. Cedeno was fast, but played mostly right field because he was a poor outfielder. I don't remember McRae having a bad defensive reputation (all 1,307 of his career games in the outfield came in center field) but he was 31 years and 1999 was his last year in the majors.
Tom Sixeas mentioned the 2013 Orioles and their low error rate.
Total Zone rating: plus-25 runs
Machado, Hardy and Jones all won Gold Gloves while Wieters had won the year before. They did commit just 54 errors, but Machado was the only one who rated as an elite defender, with plus-32 runs. Jones' metrics have matched his reputation and he graded as minus-15 runs (although a more generous minus-2 in DRS). Defensive Runs Saved concurs that this wasn't an all-time great defensive team, with plus-17 runs.
I bring up the 2001 Seattle Mariners.
Total Zone rating: plus-104 runs
The Mariners, my favorite defensive team of all time, allowed 160 runs less than the AL average. Cameron and Suzuki won Gold Gloves while Boone and Olerud won the next two years (in fact, all four won in 2003, when the Mariners graded out at plus-75 runs).
Our old friend Louisville Slugger mentioned the Big Red Machine. The 1975 Cincinnati Reds matched the 1976 team with four Gold Glove winners, but rates much better.
Key defenders: C Johnny Bench, SS Dave Concepcion, 2B Joe Morgan, CF Cesar Geronimo, LF George Foster
Total Zone rating: plus-61 runs
Again, Bench is probably underrated here, rating at just plus-10 runs even though he had a 46 percent caught stealing rate and just 32 steals allowed in 132 starts. Pete Rose (minus-12 runs), who moved to third base in May, and Ken Griffey Sr. (minus-6) knock the Reds down a notch.
OK, did we miss any obvious candidates? There were two other teams who rated at plus-100 runs.
Key defenders: SS Walt Weiss, 2B Mike Gallego, LF Rickey Henderson, CF Dave Henderson, 1B Mark McGwire
Total Zone rating: plus-107 runs
This one was surprising since the Bash Brothers A's were known more for their power than their defense, but the A's did allow the fewest runs in the league while finishing just 12th in strikeouts. Sure, the Oakland Coliseum helped, but they were turning a lot of balls in play into outs.
Key defenders: CF Kirby Puckett, 3B Gary Gaetti, LF Mickey Hatcher, 1B Kent Hrbek, RF Tom Brunansky
Total Zone rating: plus-105 runs
Puckett and Gaetti were certainly elite defenders, especially when they were still young (this was Puckett's rookie season). But plus-15 for Hatcher? Hrbek at plus-12? Second baseman Tim Teufel at plus-9? But this was a young team, and defense peaks early. The team had good run prevention -- third in the AL in runs allowed -- while ranking 13th in strikeouts.
When searching the year-by-year totals for Total Zone, I looked for all teams that were plus-75 runs or better. We run into an issue when looking at older teams: Prior to 1960, only four teams score that high. Yes, the season was eight games shorter, but maybe the higher error totals of that earlier era influence the ratings.
I would need to spend more time researching those teams to see who had great defensive reputations and whether the numbers we do have match those reputations, but I already promised this column last week, so I'll have to end up slighting those pre-1950 teams.
This would be my top seven defensive teams of all time:
7. 1907 Chicago Cubs. They scored at plus-74 runs, one of those early teams that rate close to the best modern teams. Of course, they had a great reputation, with the famous Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance poem extolling their abilities of "making a Giant hit into a double.: I know Bill James did a study that showed Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance weren't particularly special at turning the double play, but they were all superb fielders and the Cubs won 107 games that season, in the midst of a long run of excellence and all three made the Hall of Fame.
6. 2013-2015 Kansas City Royals. Their +93 Defensive Runs Saved figure in 2013 is the second-highest of DRS era (behind only the +95 of the 2005 Phillies) and defense was obviously vital to their playoff runs in 2014 and 2015. Maybe they lack that one signature, historic defender, but they've solid across the board.
5. 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates. I'm going off the leaderboards here. They score only at plus-38 in Total Zone, which seems to underrate the defense on this team. Young Roberto Clemente (+3) played right field, and he's maybe the best right fielder of all time. His defensive ratings are great for his career, just not so great in 1960, even though he had 19 assists. Bill Mazeroski (+7) made the Hall of Fame solely because of his defense; he's still regarded as the best ever at turning the double play. Shortstop Dick Groat (+16) did rate well on defense. The center fielder was Bill Virdon (+9), who would win a Gold Glove in 1962. Part-time catcher Smoky Burgess threw out 50 percent of basestealers. Third baseman Don Hoak (+7) had slightly above average range factors throughout his career. So you have two all-time great defenders and some other assets and you won the World Series. Works for me.
4. 2002 Anaheim Angels. They had a lot of excellent defensive ratings in this era with the 2002 World Series champs topping them off at plus-98 runs. Darin Erstad won a Gold Glove with an amazing year at plus-39 runs: He made 3.39 plays per game compared to the league average of 2.77. The rest of the team was above average across the board with no weak spots: Troy Glaus, David Eckstein, Garret Anderson, Adam Kennedy, Bengie Molina, Tim Salmon and Scott Spiezio.
3. 1986 St. Louis Cardinals. For years, Whitey Herzog built his team around speed and defense. This team didn't reach the World Series like his 1982, 1985 and 1987 teams, but it may have been the most complete defensive squad.
2. 2001 Seattle Mariners. They won 116 games and defense was a big reason why. The best defensive team I've ever seen, even without having an elite shortstop (Carlos Guillen was good, but not great). Besides the Gold Glove winners, David Bell was a plus at third base and Dan Wilson an asset behind the plate.
1. 1969-73 Baltimore Orioles. A pretty clear choice as the greatest defensive team of all time. If there was a Hall of Fame of Defense, Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Paul Blair would all be first-ballot inductees. When Bobby Grich replaced Davey Johnson at second, the defense got even better. There's a reason Jim Palmer had a career .249 BABIP. In fact, he may owe his Hall of Fame career to the guys playing behind him.